Road Network Operations
& Intelligent Transport Systems
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Context of ITS Use

The context of use describes the conditions and environment in which users interact with ITS. Examples include:

  • a driver of a car trying to find a route from an information system while driving in heavy traffic and running late for an appointment
  • a user buying a public transport ticket from a vending machine in bright sunlight when seated in a wheelchair
  • an operator of a traffic control facility setting a variable message sign for the roadway from an office environment
  • a technician replacing electronic signs on an elevated platform above a road in a strong wind

The context describes the main issues likely to have a bearing on the interaction such as “who” “when” “where” and the environmental conditions.

The context of use is an important consideration when designing how users interact with ITS. It can affect motivation, performance, attitudes and behaviour of the users and the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the interaction. An ITS device should not be described as “usable” or “ergonomic” without also describing the context in which that use takes place.

Any measurements of usability (user-friendliness) should be carried out in an appropriate context and include a detailed description of that context.

User Context

Part of the context of use includes the user(s) themselves – who can be characterised in many ways including their knowledge, skills, experience, education, training, physical attributes, motor and sensory capabilities. The user’s experience is the context of events that have immediately preceded this interaction with ITS. (See Diversity of ITS Users)

The user can also be identified in terms of their current mood, time pressure and their goals in interacting with the ITS.

Task Context

Tasks are the activities undertaken to achieve a goal and are part of the context. Issues here include the frequency and duration of the tasks to be undertaken. (See Human Tasks and Errors)

Technological Context

The technological environment includes the software and hardware of ITS. For example, interacting on a small mobile screen or a full screen are different contexts. The speed of processing and the characteristics of a keyboard can all affect the usability of ITS. The availability of reference material/user guides and other equipment may also be relevant.

Organisational Context

For some interactions with ITS, the organisational context may be relevant such as the attitudes of an organisation’s management and employees towards the ITS, the way task performance is monitored and any internal procedures or practices. The structure of the organisation, reporting and reward arrangements, the availability of assistance, and frequency of interruption – are all relevant factors.

Social Context

Interaction with ITS can be different depending on whether it is an individual or group activity, and whether it is undertaken in public or private. For example, use of an individual ticket machine may involve some social pressure to complete the interaction quickly if there are others waiting to use the facility. Driving is a kind of social activity where there may be both cooperation and competition.

Physical Environmental Context

This includes a number of environmental issues:

  • thermal environment (temperature, humidity)
  • visual environment (brightness, reflection, glare, shadows)
  • auditory environment (noise, frequency, loudness)
  • other weather (wind, precipitation)
  • posture (standing, seated, stationary, moving, vibration)
  • clothing (sunglasses, gloves, other protective equipment)

The 5W+H Checklist

Another way of representing the various contextual factors is the 5W+H checklist:

  • who are the users that are interacting with the ITS?
  • why are they interacting with it?
  • what equipment is being used?
  • where is it being used? for example – publicly, privately
  • when is it being used? for example, in bright sunlight or at night
  • how is it being used? for example, seating or standing (See Human Tasks and Errors)

Advice to Practitioners

Always investigate and document the context of use when designing how users interact with Intelligent Transport Systems as ITS need to be designed for specific contexts.

The following five steps are recommended in specifying the context of use for an ITS (product or service):

  • describe the Intelligent Transport System and service
  • identify the users and other stakeholders
  • describe the context of use
  • identify important factors affecting the usability of the ITS and concentrate on the “worst case” context rather than benign situations
  • decide on requirements or test conditions

Use Checklists and Diagrams

Checklists can be helpful in describing the context of use. Diagrams can also be helpful. The example in the figure below concerns a driver’s use of an in-vehicle ITS.

Context of ITS use within a vehicle by a driver

Try it in Practice

Develop an evaluation plan for the ITS (system or service) and then undertake trials in realistic contexts. Based on feedback and results, re-design the system or service or modify the context of use to achieve the required level of usability.

In the longer term, the Road Operator should set up mechanisms for monitoring ITS use and receiving feedback from users. (See Measuring Performance and Evaluation)

Restrict Context of Use as Necessary

Particular attention should be given to safety-critical tasks. The Road Operator may wish to consider imposing restrictions on interactions in some contexts of use where there is particular risk. Examples might relate to health and safety considerations such as:

  • restricting road access during extreme cold conditions
  • reducing speed limits in poor visibility
  • cancelling maintenance activities during extreme weather
  • restricting noise exposure of road workers
  • restricting access to in-vehicle system functionality when driving


Reference sources

ISO/IEC. 1998: 9241–11. Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals (VDT)s – Part 11 Guidance on usability, ISO/IEC 9241-11: 1998 (E), 1998.

Maguire, M, (2001) Context of use within usability activities. Int. J. Human-computer Studies 55, 453-483